Thursday, 12 February 2015

Purchasing Agents - agents of the devil

Originally written in September 2007...

Purchasing agents are parasites on the face of academia. They're like estate agents only less well-informed, less educated, less useful and probably paid more. They exist solely to prevent researchers being able to do their work. Researchers receive grants to buy equipment to enable them to research. Equipment like mass spectrometers for instance. For the most part (and I admit there are some notable exceptions, but we'll leave them out of it), these researchers are experts in their field. They understand the technical challenges and are the people best placed to specify exactly what the equipment needs to do. We spend months working with them to precisely capture their requirements and design bespoke instrumentation that will satisfy their needs. They, meanwhile, acquire funding to buy their new kit. But are they allowed to spend it? Oh no, they have to ask their purchasing agents to do it for them. Bureaucratic, small-minded, pen-pushing idiots who wouldn't know a mass spectrometer if it landed on them (and I wish it would). People who require certificates to demonstrate that our welding has been carried out in accordance with British Standard blah-de-blah. People who want to know if the electronics is CE marked. People who want copies of invoices from previous customers to prove that we're offering them a fair price. People who don't seem able to grasp that WE HAVEN'T BUILT IT YET! How can we possibly certificate the welding on something that only exists on paper? How can we 'prove' the price of a bespoke piece of engineering to you? And no, you can't have a discount either. I don't care if you're a university. The price is the price.

One of the many government labs in this country has been trying to buy a large instrument from us since the end of last year, and the current news is that the contract will be delayed until NEXT year. It's already been through a budget-approval board, a board to assess the validity of the experiment to be done (both entirely reasonable), a health and safety review board, a national security review, and an installation review. Now it turns out that it needs to have a panel of purchasing agents involved. Not just one, but several. The money is approved by everyone from God downwards and the researcher is champing at the bit trying to do some more work, but no, some scientifically-illiterate wonk gets to decide when or if we get the contract. Never mind the fact that we're the only people in the world that will make one of these instruments. Never mind the fact that some of the country's top scientists have to sit twiddling their thumbs, unable to make progress for OVER A YEAR simply because they're not considered trustworthy enough to buy their own instrumentation. Let them be responsible for our nuclear deterrent, but for goodness sake don't let them buy a voltmeter!

Once again HM Government does its best to crush British engineering, ingenuity and enterprise under the heel of bureaucracy...

Update February 2015:
They never did order the instrument. They had one of those eensy-weensy accidents that you don't really want to have if you run a nuclear laboratory and the funds were all diverted to making sure it didn't turn into a "holy shit, what have we done?" kind of accident. So maybe it was a good thing they didn't spend their money on a new instrument. But purchasing agents are still a waste of oxygen.

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